Rumpelstiltskin | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Hystopolis Puppet Theater

Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believes that fairy tales are darkly symbolic myths that tap into the unconscious fears and longings of children. For him, "Rapunzel" is the story of the perennial adolescent struggle--a pubescent girl trying to gain independence from her mother. "Little Red Riding Hood" is about the stress of emerging sexuality. The poet Robert Bly claims that certain fairly tales illustrate his belief that the bond between father and son is mysterious, powerful, and precious.

Well, the folks at the Hystopolis Puppet Theater will have none of this. They adapt fairy tales for only one reason--to provide fun for children. Their current production of Rumpelstiltskin is a delightful three-dimensional cartoon full of foolish characters and genuine slapstick. (In fact, the puppeteers actually use a slapstick for sound effects.) Any attempt to find psychological insight in this production will earn you a trip through the spanking machine.

For me, puppet theater has always conjured up an image of Garfield Goose clacking his beak or Burr Tillstrom's Ollie biting Kukla's nose. Puppets seem inherently stiff and phony--creatures only a child could love. However, Hystopolis puppets are very hip. Their creators--Lawrence Basgall, John and Paul Gegenhuber, Cindy Orthal, Michael Schwabe, and Tina Steele--have borrowed ideas from the Muppets, Pee-wee's Playhouse, Looney Tunes, and Kabuki theater.

In Rumpelstiltskin there's a frying pan that talks--two strips of bacon, located below two sunny-side-up egg eyes, are lips that move up and down. Why is the pan talking? Because King Egbert the Soft-boiled, whose lower lip goes up and down like a drawbridge when he talks, gets advice and admiration from the pan. "Eggy, Eggy, in the pan, tell me how great I am."

The king's wife is a scowling, muscular hen who uses a rolling pin to keep her husband in line. One of the king's messengers looks like the spaced-out cat in the Bloom County comic strip. The knight who announces the king's arrival consists of two Cookie Monster eyes peeking out of a cone-shaped pile of metal. Rumpelstiltskin himself looks like a cross between a gnome and a court jester.

While liberties have obviously been taken with the plot, the basic outline of the old story remains visible. The king, short on cash, hears about the Boastful Man--a life-size puppet whose mouth and eyebrows move realistically--who likes to brag that his daughter can spin straw into gold. Well that certainly would alleviate the kingdom's currency crisis, so the king summons the young woman, who looks and sounds a bit like Joan Rivers. He offers her a deal she can't refuse: if she agrees to spin a few loads of straw into gold for the king, she can marry the prince and become a princess. If she fails, she must endure the spanking machine. Locked in a room with the straw and a spinning wheel, the daughter frets about her fate until Rumpelstiltskin appears and offers to do the job for her in exchange for her firstborn child. When he comes to collect, he offers to let her off the hook if she can guess his name. When she does, Rumpelstiltskin throws a tantrum and gets sent to the spanking machine--a contraption that resembles an iron lung with a wicked paddle wheel inside.

The show moves quickly and only lasts 45 minutes, so there's little danger of children becoming bored. And after the show, puppeteers John Gegenhuber and Michael Schwabe, who also wrote the script, took off their black hoods and answered questions about the puppets. "What's inside the spanking machine?" "How did you make that big man?" "What's that stuff that looks like french fries?"

Hystopolis Productions, located in an attractive new space at 441 W. North, is a haven for anyone with children who could use some entertaining. Sure, the show is as superficial as Saturday-morning cartoons, and the script could use a rewrite or two. In a way, it's the entertainment equivalent of fast food--not very nutritious, but appealing to kids.

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